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The People that Built Camden

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Elly Clarke, Camden Meeting 30th January 2015, View over Kings Cross

Following the Local Government Act of 1963, the creation of the Borough of Camden in 1965 was intended to shift jurisdiction over the development of the Borough from the overall remit of the now-defunct London County Council to local level implementation. The Borough’s formation brought with it the responsibility for Holborn, St Pancras and Hampstead, as well as jurisdiction over the Planning control, affording the Borough a position of great influence whilst also shifting the focus from general, County-wide considerations to the specific, local character and concerns. The sheer remit of the Borough’s size meant that they could be truly ambitious in their aspirations, supported by what – in the 1960s – was one of the highest rateable income groups in the UK. This established an ethos to deliver high quality architecture, underpinned economically and politically by the democratic structures in place within the Council. Over the past 50 years, the Borough has delivered what has been noted to be the most impressive of London's various municipal housing programmes”[1], and continues to enjoy a reputation for adopting a broad-minded approach, encouraging innovative and experimental development of discernable quality.

Such a reputation was imbued from the outset by the council’s own Architects’ Department, under which a “talented team able to describe at all scales the conditions for pleasurable inhabitation”[2] was assembled, headed by Sydney Cook (1910-79) from the Borough’s formation in 1965 until 1973. Cook had in fact been inherited from the Holborn Borough Council Architects’ Department, where he had worked on the Holborn Library ten years earlier (although the design itself is attributed to his deputy Ernest Ives and assistants I D Aylott and E L Ansell [3]). During his time at Camden, he developed a reputation for adopting a more innovative approach than that otherwise required of the role – the briefs handed down to the Department often called for off the peg structures - whilst seeking out high caliber designers with whom to work and collaborate. Cook’s ethos was to maintain a more human scale approach to urbanism, retaining the Borough’s characteristic four-storey streets in place of system-built high rise blocks. Despite this, “…in only eight years [Cook’s team] managed to realise 47 social housing projects of a quality, scale and ambition that has arguably not been surpassed, despite subsequent spending booms.” [4]

Amongst those who worked under Cook were architects Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, who joined Camden Architects’ Department in 1968, straight from their training at the Architectural Association. Their contribution to the work - alongside Neave Brown on the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate (of which more later) – highlighted their talents to Cook, who then gave the young architects responsibility for the development of a housing scheme for 73 flats at Mansfield Road (as well as 9 family houses running parallel on Lamble Street), constructed between 1974 and 1980. The move away from the “off the peg” architecture which Cook had fought against may have been a step too far however, since - according to the Twentieth Century Society – the complexities of the schemes construction meant that “to obtain a tender list Camden had to approach sixty contractors. It took six years and a tower crane was needed – exceptional for three-storey housing on this scale. But worth it.” The renowned quality of their work was continued in the design of the renowned Branch Hill (1979) and Maiden Lane estates for the Borough. In the 1980s, under the political reformation associated with the Local Government Act of 1985, Benson and Forsyth left the Council to establish their own private practice, and have since been nominated for the Stirling Prize for their work on the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin in 1999 and 2002 respectively.

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Elly Clarke, Camden Meeting 30th January 2015, View over Kings Cross

Their collaborator on that early project, Neave Brown - who still resides in one of the schemes he designed whilst working in the Borough at the Dunboyne Road estate – was another of the key defining characters of the Architects’ Department. His first major project in 1964 was right on the edge of the Borough, comprising a terrace of five townhouses at 22-32 Winscombe Street, designed as a cohousing project for a group of architects including Michael and Patty Hopkins (who shall be elaborated upon in their own right). The scheme was highly influential on the aesthetic development of many schemes in the department at the time – particularly for Benson and Forsyth’s Mansfield Road project previously outlined – and acted as a prototype for his following work at Camden, embodying principles of each dwelling having its own front door, and access to a private outdoor space in the form of a garden or terrace, which were later demonstrated in his projects at Fleet Road and the Alexander and Ainsworth Estates. These schemes have since been listed Grade II and II* respectively by English Heritage, making Brown the first architect to have all his UK work listed[5]. However, following a high-profile public enquiry into cost overruns in the design of the Alexandra Road project, Brown left Camden to move into private practice, delivering projects continuing such principles for Eindhoven.

The influence of such architects was not confined to within the Department itself, however. Neave Brown is regarded as the “Godfather” of Anthony Hunt Associates[6], the structural engineers who went on to make fundamental contribution to the development of key British projects[7]. Brown, as project architect, orchestrated the appointment of Anthony Hunt’s fledgling practice for the work at Alexandra Road. It was a brave appointment to undertake a practice with only a fledgling portfolio of completed schemes, undertaken in a way that ”wouldn’t happen now”[8], but which enabled the practice to develop a broadminded approach to construction and the design aspirations of the architectural team in a manner which AHA are still renowned for today.

It was also through Brown that Anthony Hunt was introduced to Richard and Su Rogers, who – alongside Norman Foster, Wendy Cheeseman – were to go on to form Team 4, a fundamental group for the development of the High Tech architectural movement in Britain. Whilst these co-founders of have gone on to become synonymous with the face of contemporary British architecture, Georgie Wolton – who was initially the only qualified architect of the group – has all but disappeared from the annals of architectural history. Inspired by the work of the Eames’, Mies van der Rohe and Johnson in America, she experimented with using CorTen steel as a primary structural material for a house in Surrey. Her only other noted project stands in Camden; a series of live/work spaces for artists built at Cliff Road Studios in 1968. She later turned her hand to landscape design, most notably for Su Rogers’ River Cafe.

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Elly Clarke, Camden Meeting 30th January 2015, View over Kings Cross

The architect Peter Tabori had also been a key figure in the development of what was to become Camden’s “house style” and the distinctive ziggurat forms evident in the design of the Lulot Gardens in the Whittington Estate, the Institute of Education (completed in 1975, by Denys Lasdun) and Brunswick Centre (completed 1978, by Patrick Hodgkinson). The lineage is clear - having worked with both Erno Goldfinger and Denys Lasdun, Tabori had been taken on by Cook to join the Camden Architects’ Department on the strength of his student projects at the Regents Street Polytechnic for the development of Highgate New Town. Continuing Neave Brown’s principles of individual front doors and private open space, the stepped section of Lulot Gardens in the Whittington Estate and Oakshott Court in Somers Town are defining characteristics of the housing from this “golden era”.

Thanks to its reputation, Camden continued to be a magnet for innovatively creative architects to the present day. Rick Mather – whose practice is still based on Camden High Street despite the eponymous architect’s death from asbestos-related cancer in 2013found the Borough the ideal location for his first project, his own house in Arlington Road in 1973, from which Mather was able to establish his own practice.

Mather had been a lifelong admirer of the Modernist work of architects such as Maxwell Fry, Samuel and Harding, and Connell, Ward and Lucas in the borough during the 1930s, of which his design for the Klein House in Hampstead - a runner-up for the Stirling Prize in 1998 – is strongly reminiscent, presenting a seemingly simple white box exterior which belies the complexity of the triple height volumetric composition within, which enables the client to see through to the sky from the swimming pool in the basement. Due to the project’s location, the planners had allegedly suggested only mock Georgian would be acceptable, although Mather’s bravery and demonstrable quality of design won over the planning department, the neighbours, and the influential Old Heath and Hampstead Society. [9]

Over time, the Borough’s open minded ethos and willingness to engage with innovative architectural practitioners has served it well, leaving in its wake a wealth of architectural projects which these characters were able to create thanks to the welcoming environment Camden offered them.

Article by Ruth Lang

[1] Owen Hatherley, “This Property Is Condemmed,” Mute, 30th April 2013: http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/propert...

[2] David Kohn, “Cook’s Camden: London’s Great Experiment in Social Housing” Building Design, 5th November 2010

[3] Susannah Charlton, “20th Century Society Building of the Month; Holborn Library”, July 2013: http://www.c20society.org.uk/botm/holborn-library/

The attribution of authorship is a common issue in civic architecture departments, where an ethos of humility in an environment working for the greater civic good was coupled with a large professional operational structure, within which key characters are often obscured.

[4] David Kohn, “Cook’s Camden: London’s Great Experiment in Social Housing”, Building Design, 5th November 2010

[5] Elizabeth Hopkirk, “Neave Brown becomes first architect to have all his UK work listed”, Building Design, 3 October 2014

[6] Angus J. Macdonald, “Anthony Hunt (Engineer's Contribution to Architecture)”, RIBA Publications, 13 Nov 2000

[7] Such as the Sainsbury Supermarket in Camden and the Eden Project in Cornwall (both alongside Grimshaw Associates) and Willis Faber Dumas offices in Ipswich (with Foster + Parners), a seminal collaboration in architectural design.

[8] Angus J. Macdonald, “Anthony Hunt (Engineer's Contribution to Architecture)”, RIBA Publications, 13 Nov 2000

[9] Rick Mather Architects, “The Priory”: http://www.rickmather.com/project/the_priory